The Curious Case of Irrelevant Marketing

Most brands know that a one-size-fits-all approach almost never works, and in reality it is the most irrelevant marketing we see. When it does work, we’re tremendously surprised and attracted to the novelty (see: Casper). In the end, however, we usually see these companies begin to release a greater variety of products until they ultimately become like the brands they initially sought to unseat (also see: Casper).

In contrast to one-size-fits-all approach, many multi-product brands have seen the benefits of adopting personalization in providing more tailored products and marketing to their consumers. This can often have great results, as firms like McKinsey report that brands typically experience 10-30% revenue uplift from personalization efforts.

The problem is: personalization only delivers those results when it’s done right. If you’re not seeing the the results you want and consumers aren’t responding, it’s not always easy to isolate what’s gone wrong. Marketing emails, SMS messages, even direct mail campaigns often go to waste or simply accumulate on the nerves of consumers over time. Consumers may be reading and absorbing the messages, but they may also be deleting them, archiving them, “throwing the envelopes out” or, worse yet, girding themselves to unfollow your brand.

In their personalization efforts, some brands are striking the right chord while others are falling victim to irrelevant marketing and burdening their consumers as a result. For marketers to address this problem, it’s important to consider a few key elements: How big of a problem is irrelevant marketing? How to tell if it’s happening to you? What can you do about it? How do you minimize the possibility of sending your consumers irrelevant messages?

What the Data Says About Irrelevant Marketing

There’s a growing pile of resources on this topic, with a variety of themes and tactics they seek to address. A few cursory searches can surface the ones that stand out:

“Almost half – 49% – of people will disregard a brand if it bombards them with ads or if they perceive the advertising to be irrelevant; while more than one-third – 36% – are more likely to buy from a brand that sends them tailored messages, the study showed.” (Forbes)

“…7 in 10 Americans are closing down accounts and subscriptions, and ‘unfriending’ companies as a result of poorly targeted communications. 68% of Americans say they receive too many emails from brands, and one sixth (17%) say they can’t handle the current volume. As a result of this over-messaging, over half (57%) of consumers are taking steps to actively avoid companies, including:

  • Unfollowing brands on social channels (66%)

  • Closing accounts and subscriptions because individuals don’t like the communications they are receiving (70%)

  • Blocking numbers (57%)

  • Opting out from the majority of company email communications (59%)

  • Deleting apps because of push notifications (54%)

These behaviors have given rise to a new type of digitally literate consumer, dubbed the ‘Deletist Consumer’. Characterized by their unforgiving attitude to brands, they will pull the plug on receiving communications entirely if they receive irrelevant, impersonal marketing messages.” (Aimia)   


43% of adults in the U.S. said that more than half of their emails are from marketers, and marketing emails are responsible for 70% of “this is spam” complaints. (Hubspot)

“Gartner Survey shows that brands risk losing 38% of customers because of poor marketing personalization efforts. While most marketing leaders continue to strive for one-to-one personalization, achieving this type of tailored messaging falls short, causing most personalization efforts to fail, according to Gartner, Inc. The price of getting personalization wrong is steep. In a survey of more than 2,500 customers, more than half report they will unsubscribe from a company’s communications and 38 percent will stop doing business with a company if they find personalization efforts to be “creepy.” (Gartner)

With that Gartner report among the latest pieces on the topic, it’s clear that as more brands engage in higher degrees of personalization, they aren’t necessarily getting it right as time goes on. In many ways this is an invisible problem, because you’ll only know a consumer has unsubscribed once it’s too late.

The whole point of personalization is to increase engagement, so it’s ironic and unfortunate that so much personalization can end up turning consumers away. It doesn’t need to be this way! Brands just need to learn how to read the signals, carefully measure responses, and follow a test-and-learn approach to give your consumers more of what they want and less of what they don’t.

How Can You Tell If You’re Doing “Irrelevant Marketing”?

Modern marketers digest enormous amounts of data on a daily basis, so there are plenty of ways for you to evaluate and infer your marketing’s relevance. One interesting method of measuring the “irrelevance” of your marketing is your “Disaffection Rate”. In the case of email, this effectively works out to a ratio of the number of unsubscribes divided by the number of opens your campaigns receive.

# of unsubscribes / # of opens = Campaign Disaffection Rate

According to ESB Connect, anything over 1% should be a cause for concern. That means if a particular email campaign or automation open rate is 20%, an unsubscribe rate over 0.2% is a sign that either the content was unwanted, or that the messaging frequency is driving consumers away.

Certain industries or consumers may have a higher degree of sensitivity to this type of content. Unusual businesses like dating and debt services face higher unsubscribes. Home & garden, cars, subscription and insurance companies typically see higher unsubscribes but also generate higher-than-average engagement. Internet, phone, utility and travel services generate the lowest unsubscribe rates overall.

For the average brand, this is a useful guideline for whether your email campaigns are really generating the engagement or are simply turning people off. There are also a range of techniques for other channels to tell you whether your messages are being perceived as relevant or not.

Facebook Ads is one such example. Unlike traditional advertising channels, Facebook offers consumers the opportunity to hide the ads that appear in their newsfeed and other properties within Facebook’s network. To hide an ad, consumers effectively report them as either irrelevant or repetitive. After clicking through the feature, users can share more specific details whether the ad was irrelevant, repetitive, or if the product presented was already purchased.

Facebook shares this data, aggregated with other metrics, in its Ad Relevance Score. This represents how relevant your ads are to the audience targeted when compared to other ads targeting that same audience. It is offered on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being least relevant and 10 being the most relevant. Negative feedback (such as “Hide Ad” requests as shown above) lowers the score, indicating less ad relevance.

A relevance score of anywhere from 7-10 is considered good. Since the score is an “expectation” of future relevance that emerges after 500 impressions, this can be considered not only a leading indicator of the performance of a Facebook campaign, but also the relevance of your overall marketing approach.

In the case of Facebook campaigns, a low Ad Relevance score may also be increasing the cost of your ads. A marginal score can be optimized by better audience targeting, more relevant ad content and thorough testing of campaigns to make sure they’re having a meaningful impact on your audience.

No matter how many messages you send, consumers will only have a limited number of opportunities to genuinely interact with your content. You may only have a small window of opportunity to address the challenges of irrelevant marketing once it is identified. If allowed to fester, these issues can still linger no matter how much effort you apply, compromising your brand’s performance as a result.

Beyond learning how to quickly pick up on those signals of irrelevance, it’s important to also master techniques to improve the relevance of your brand’s marketing, both before and after launch.

What Can Brands Do to Make Marketing More Relevant?

At its core, the relevance challenge has less to do with the actual message sent, but rather the data on which the message is based. Erica Smith, CTO at StarRez, summarizes this well for Hackernoon:

“You cannot create a brilliant personalized experience if you don’t have meaningful insights about the human who will use it.

You can’t build meaningful insights about humans without rich, identifiable data.

You won’t have access to rich, identifiable data unless you’re capturing it from your experiences.”

“Capturing data from experiences” can have a variety of meanings, but fundamentally it speaks to the idea that you have to actually access data which is truly meaningful, personal, and relevant to the value you’re offering. For example, knowing what your consumer believes their close family members are interested in receiving for a holiday gift is more important and potentially valuable for doing relevant marketing than simply knowing broad demographic data, like the age and occupations of your consumers’ close family members.

Knowing the same thing about your consumer on a 1-to-1 basis – that is, knowing what they actually want – is much more valuable than inferring their desires with data that isn’t necessarily related to what you’re offering. Faulty inferences have a huge potential to creep your consumer out, and being too pushy in collecting more data also poses risks – 36% of consumers report that they distrust a brand when it asks for too much information.

Think of it this way – when you interact with a salesperson, you can implicitly know and control how much they know about you. Skilled salespeople have the ability to use questions delicately to surface information about customers that influences a positive response. These interactions can only be managed by a human being, of course, and they can only be done in real time. Back and forth emails or other delayed messages don’t have the same effect, particularly for consumers.

Brands need to ask questions, elicit insights and otherwise find ways to get consumers to signal their intent directly – but how to do this at scale? This could be done by quizzes, diagnostics, contests, forms, subscriptions, community management or better management of in-store data. On the other hand, Conversational AI tools including chatbots, voice assistants, virtual product advisors can offer interactive experiences that are always on, connected and more closely approximate the kind of attention and assistance we get from the most skilled of salespeople. 

To ensure that their marketing is relevant, brands need to engage consumers by offering real value, and use that engagement to surface specific intent towards individual products and services. Context-driven and behaviour-driven data are useful to brands, but they aren’t enough: brands need to rely on declared data to appropriately and effectively nudge their customer relationships forward. When deploying expert one-to-one sales techniques at scale, the data that’s produced isn’t lost to an individual memory – it can be leveraged through every future marketing message in the customer relationship.

Reducing the Irrelevant Messages Your Brand Sends

“Tailored Help” is a useful model for how brands can improve the relevance of their marketing efforts. As referenced above, Gartner found that brands risk losing 38% of their consumers to poor personalization efforts. This includes cases where inferences have gone wrong, or suggestions veer into creepy territory.

For instance, imagine inferring a consumer’s preference for buying a particular television based only on the amount of time spent looking at 3 models on a brand website. They may have spent 37 seconds looking at the first one, 42 seconds on the second and 108 seconds on the third. The brand’s inference model the might concludes they are strong candidates to buy TV #3, retargeting them accordingly.

These types of campaigns may enhance personalization, but how are brands to know if those extra 66 seconds between TV #2 and #3 were actually engaged, interested or relevant to the consumer? “Tailored Help” steps in as an alternative here by focusing on addressing a consumer’s immediate needs while gaining granular first-party insight into what they’re really looking for. Essentially, it takes the form of messages that provide guidance or support through a path to purchase – even if a customer is only evaluating products – while relying on as few inferred data dimensions as possible.

This replaces inference modelling, the fuel of many irrelevant marketing efforts, by more efficiently engaging consumers when they seek out information on a brand. Imagine if a consumer is again looking for a TV online. By offering tailored help and asking direct questions about their priorities (like screen size, picture quality, compatible devices or more), a brand can more reliably figure out what a consumer is in the market for directly from them. Furthermore, they avoid relying on the irrelevant data and inferences that lead to irrelevant marketing.

88% of consumers have reported lacking this kind of assistance when shopping online. Offering it can improve metrics like brand intent, purchase, repurchase and total cart size by 20%. Inference modelling may not have fully run its course, but today brands have a greater opportunity to increase revenue with tailored help – all while avoiding the downsides of sending irrelevant messages.

Still have questions?  We’re fired up to help as many brands as possible to raise the bar of user and customer experience in eCommerce.  If you need help implementing website engagement tools for your brand or want to talk further about any of the tactics in this article, we should talk ASAP!

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